WEST BERLIN, NOV. 22 -- Mikhail Gorbachev is moving to limit the damage done to his program of radical change in Soviet society by the controversy surrounding the public dismissal of Boris Yeltsin and will pursue his campaign for reform despite the opposition that has surfaced, Soviet intellectuals have indicated to western scholars and experts here.
The Soviets' willingness to make these assessments of the recent political turmoil in Moscow, in comments to Americans and Europeans during a discussion meeting, suggested that they have concluded on their own that Gorbachev's reform programs are not seriously endangered now by hard-line opposition and that it is politically viable to continue to support those programs.
But the Soviet participants acknowledged indirectly that Gorbachev and his supporters are now likely to move at a more cautious pace while the leadership sorts out the strong feelings unleashed by the Yeltsin case. The controversy, they suggested, centers on the speed and scope of economic restructuring, known as perestroika, and of the move for openness in government affairs, or glasnost.
"In any effort like this, there can be steps backwards as well as forward," said Valentin Berezhkov, editor in chief of USA magazine. "There is no full guarantee that it moves ahead all the time." Added Stanislav M. Menshikov, an economist and editorial consultant to the World Marxist Review: "The important thing is that we are still moving. We are proceeding on a consensus speed."
"Despite a setback, the general tendency toward more glasnost is irreversible," said Andre V. Kortunov, an official of the USA-Canada Institute, a Soviet governmental body that analyzes policy and public opinion in North America. "The rise in the Soviet educational level makes it more difficult to deprive a society of information . . . and is an additional guarantee against retreat. A society that has computers and other advanced information equipment demands glasnost."
These three Soviet participants agreed that remarks they originally made to the closed meeting of about 30 scholars, government officials and journalists at the Aspen Institute of Berlin could be quoted. The conference ended today.
The Soviet participants stressed their view that Yeltsin's dismissal from his post as leader of the Moscow Communist Party apparatus had been caused by an emotional outburst at an Oct. 21 meeting of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee and was not part of a power struggle in the Kremlin over reform.
"Soviet intellectuals have their fingers crossed that this is only a specific matter involving Yeltsin and that it won't have a damaging effect on Gorbachev and his programs," said Robert Legvold, director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute of Soviet studies, after listening to the conference's presentations.
While saying that he found that view credible, Legvold added that his own feeling was that "Gorbachev is more hurt than helped by this. It raises the question of the extent to which Gorbachev's handling of this opens the door to criticism of his program. By moving so quickly to reaffirm his program this week, he suggested that he understands this danger exists."
Gorbachev led the denunciations of Yeltsin for "political immaturity" at the Nov. 11 leadership meeting that ousted Yeltsin from his Moscow party job. The abrasive denunciations of the man who had been considered to be one of the most outspoken advocates of swift change in the Soviet Union were published in full by the Soviet press two days later.
But with dismay spreading in Moscow and abroad over Yeltsin's public humiliation, and the chilling effect it was likely to have on calls for change, the government appointed Yeltsin last week to a position in the State Committee of Construction with ministerial rank. On Friday, Tass reported a Gorbachev speech to the party leadership in which he castigated equally over-zealous prosecution of perestroika and democratic reforms and conservative resistance to them.
These moves were fastened on by some in the five-member Soviet delegation here as deliberate signals that Yeltsin's downfall does not presage a general retreat on economic restructuring and the opening of new debates about Soviet history and government accountability.
"Yeltsin was one exponent of ultraspeed. The leadership is proceeding on consensus speed. This was a case of excessive impatience, of one person choosing an inappropriate time to talk about certain things," said Menshikov, who was a staff member of the Central Committee's Information Department until a year ago, when he moved to Prague to oversee the World Marxist Review magazine.
"This was a concrete case, involving what is permissible from a political tactical point of view," said Berezhkov.
As Yeltsin's remarks at the crucial Oct. 21 meeting have not been published, none of the Soviet participants would discuss what he may have said or done to provoke a collective loss of temper at the Central Committee meeting. Nor would they speculate on why Yeltsin's declaration continues to be suppressed.
But some of the Kremlinologists here have gathered indications from Soviet sources that Yeltsin, furious over his inability to prompt the Moscow bureaucracy to respond to his efforts at change, persisted in submitting his resignation at the Oct. 21 meeting despite an admonition from Gorbachev to "think this over."
Feeling personally betrayed by Yeltsin's refusal to defer his complaints until after Gorbachev completed the November celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the upcoming summit in Washington, the Soviet leader then reportedly decided to make an example of Yeltsin for disregarding party discipline.
Soviet delegates characterized opposition to Gorbachev's programs as being centered in "bureaucratic sabotage of the reforms" rather than involving political opposition within the Politburo. This view was only partly shared by some of the western experts present.
"The Yeltsin affair has made it more difficult to forecast what is going to happen in the Kremlin but easier to understand what is going on there," said French Kremlinologist Helen Carrere d'Encausse. "It is more evidence that Gorbachev has become much more cautious as there has been more disagreement about how far and how fast change should be pushed."